BARBARA I GONGINI: The Relational Coexistence Between Faroese Roots, Japanese avant-garde Design, and the Responsibility Towards Sustainability
Cowrite with Malthe S. Rye Thomsen
"Everybody thinks the Faroe Islands are so, so green. Very often it is the contrary, almost like living within a black and grey mist.”
- Barbara Gongini, Designer of Barbara I Gongini
It is Friday morning in Copenhagen. The central part of the city is buzzing and alive. The inner part of Copenhagen has this commercial spirit and mainstream feeling, but when we take the harbor boat from Esplanaden to Refshaleøen in bright sunlight it all looks different. Refshaleøen is more industrial, at least on the surface. We walk along the road from the harbor in the direction of the industrial buildings. In one of these buildings the production of the avant-garde brand Barbara I Gongini takes places and this is where we are going to interview Barbara Gongini.
Barbara was born in the Faroe Islands in 1966. She explains that she often hears people portraying the Faroe Islands as a green oasis, but she stresses that this is not the whole story to her birthplace. Barbara explains how in winter the window of light can be as short as just a few hours, and that it is dominated by dark and heavy rain clouds. Barbara tells us how she never wore a raincoat in the Faroe Islands despite the constant rain, and because of this she has a memory of always feeling wet. She describes living in the Faroe Islands as sometimes living in a gray and black, misty and rainy fog mass:
"You can hear the boats trying to navigate in this mass of black and gray. Wooh Wooh. It is a very particular sound. It is in our bones.”
The horns from the ships create an atmosphere of slowness; an everyday life where you go to school and go home, without seeing much daylight during winter. You just go to A to get to B, Barbara explains. There is a certain conformity about it. She describes how the capital, Thorshavn, is almost the shape of a pan and that it sometimes feels like the rain and the fog are contained in the pan of Thorshavn. When you look at Barbara’s designs, it’s easy to see that she is heavily influenced by the Scandinavian darkness, the moody winters, and melancholic undertones that define the Faroe Islands. “You are what you emanate from,” she says. “It’s very deep in my bones.”
A Diverse and Multi-Inspirational Approach to Design
Barbara never approached design in a way that it was supposed to be something specific. Her very first collections were made from scraps, and when she designs her current collections, she is more concerned with what inspires her, what fits into her wardrobe concept, and where pieces from each collection can all be worn together, rather than trends. Barbara is inspired by her Faroese roots, Scandinavian women, and the Japanese avant-garde designer, Rai Kawakubo, all of which is visible through her black, sometimes monochrome, expression. It all comes together with the underlying relationship to the Japanese avant-garde fashion that pushes boundaries beyond the point of comfort, and the Scandinavian undertones are supported by the challenging expressions of the avant-garde. She naturally falls into this domain, and with her roots in the Faroese culture it is not surprising; you are a product of your upbringing, surroundings, and inspirational sources. Like her inspirational source Kawakubo's intellectual and feminist pre-punk take on fashion, Barbara’s brand also has a similar political dimension. It represents both a resistance against normative views on fashion and also a political urge to work against the societal rules of women's bodies and social injustice. She advocates free and unconditional love regardless of your sexual orientation. It's in her DNA to resist the normative pressures and societal order towards the body and sex. At the same time, the brand's DNA also has a playful and explorative imagination towards how to style and wear clothing, mixed with a proper nordic respect for craftsmanship.The development of your identity is shown as an expression of your web of interlocution, and for Barbara I Gongini, this goes for the identity of the brand itself, as well as its creator.
You are affected by your roots, but there is also a great need to change and mold this expression. In an ever-changing time we need to acknowledge that we need to change and develop not only in relation to our personal development, but also in relation to the changes that our planet and our society are going through. Customers today are demanding more and more from the designer, and sustainability is becoming a bigger and greater issue for many consumers, leading to an increase in the demand for transparency when it comes to the production of the items that they purchase. This has started to affect the approach of many brands and is indeed challenging the foundation of the fashion industry as a whole. For many brands, this means going back to their roots, and re-evaluating how they can interpret sustainability in their domain, to fulfill their responsibilities to the brand, the consumers, and the demand for sustainability. The Scandinavian way of approaching design is very minimalistic; it references nature in its use of textures, colors and cuts, and is in many ways a good starting point for sustainable production, because it favors the natural and the raw. This is also how Barbara approaches design, pushing the limits even further with her avant-garde approach, still rooted deeply in her Scandinavian background. The Faroese culture insisted on playing a crucial role in Barbara’s life, and she is in no way trying to romanticize her roots and upbringing in the Faroe Islands. She talks about it critically, but also warmly and respectfully. She explains that she has this feeling of being so small, and that coming from a little society, deeply interconnected with nature, has made her very aware of the crucial connection to nature, and how we need to guard this connection, not just in design, but in life in general. “This is who I am,” she underlines.
Barbara I Gongini’s design has a very distinct look and most of her pieces are black with occasional white, and you can tell that she is sick of defending herself and her brand. She underlines that “there is poetry in black, it’s not Goth.” Black is part of the brand’s DNA and refers to both her roots in the Faroe Islands, and the Japanese avant-garde.
The Creation of Versatile Pieces
Barbara explains that she has been working from the idea of the square and the circle for many years. Once again, like her inspiration in Kawakubo, she is finding new ways to twist the conventional form into new possibilities and structures. Barbara explains her ideas, inspirations, and materials are a collective thought. She does not necessarily sketch her collections. Sometimes she uses draping – so the development of the styles are a mixture of the fabric and the possibilities they hold within her principles.
Barbara emphasizes that experimenting with fabrics and shapes are a central part of the DNA of the brand. Over the years we have seen her experiment with different materials such as thin and thick cotton, wool and leather but also with more experimental fabrics such as technical silk etc. Barbara does not only experiment with fabrics; she has also tested out different printed statements and even though the black color is a strong part of the DNA, she has also surprised everyone with blue, green and yellow color shades. We remember sitting in the Carlsberg bottling plant during fashion week a couple of years back when Barbara shocked the whole crowd by introducing a neon yellow-green techno inspired color as complimentary to her black DNA. Barbara herself underlines her connection to the artistic.
We will argue that this experimental approach towards design and fashion opens up possibilities for a particularly close and special relationship to Barbara’s customers. A relationship where co-designing and co-production might be possible. The consumer and designer should exist in a close relationship, and what Barbara offers with her designs is a way for the consumers to take part in the final part of the design. This is constituted not only through listening to the demands of the consumers in terms of a more sustainable production line, but also in the design itself. Barbara makes pieces that can be personalized and worn in many different ways so the consumer has the freedom to shape it according to their bodies and personal style. We ask her how she comes up with these pieces: “I can’t think of a design; I explore it,” she explains. Furthermore, “the intelligence sits in another place, a non-verbal place”. For Barbara, the design process is linked with intuition rather than intelligence. You can set a direction in terms of shape, fabrics, tendencies, and stitching, but the design process itself happens between her hands, not in her mind. The design of the different pieces gives consumers a greater sense of freedom to interpret them.
Because of the combination of a strong brand identity and versatile pieces, the consumer receives something quite special. They are wearing something with a strong and clear DNA, and while taking part in the expression of the brand’s identity, they still have the freedom of creating the expression of the particular item by bringing their own personal spin into the mix. Not just in the aesthetic expression of the item itself, but also in the way the item is worn. The clothes can be worn in different ways, dressed up or down for different occasions, and it is a physical manifestation of Barbara’s ideas about design and fashion as a need for more substance and more versatile solutions.
Talking to Barbara, it becomes very clear that the concept of design and sustainability stretches far beyond the choice of fabrics, dyes, and production. For her, it is also about the social responsibilities that are hidden in these categories, which include social responsibility towards the factory workers, the rights of women in the industry regardless of whether it is in India or Pakistan, and the responsibility towards the planet. The time we live in is defined by rapid change, and it can sometimes seem like the bigger, slower changes are ignored because of this. Barbara explains that the demand for sustainability has been on her radar for a very long time, but that she has only recently started to feel like this is becoming a trend. Fashion is a great starting point for change when it comes to becoming more sustainable in the way that we consume, and Barbara underlines that she feels a responsibility as a designer to make her production as clean and sustainable as possible.
When it comes to sustainability, Barbara acknowledges that the fashion industry is a tricky place to be in. Everything that is used in the production can in some way be harmful to both the environment and the workers. The dying and tanning of fabrics, coating, glue, threads, and buttons are all problematic in one way or another. Even though one might have the ambition to be sustainable, Barbara explains that it is in many ways impossible. “The market is just not ready yet”, she says, which means that the demand for sustainable fabrics and production is not putting enough pressure on the industry to change. There are not enough options for the sustainable domain to create a 100% clean collection. Sometimes sustainable fabrics are dyed in a non-sustainable way or the other way round, which makes it tricky to choose. As a designer you must have a lot of knowledge and constantly be updated of changes within the production line, in order to stay on top of what’s currently happening. This is of course one way of looking at it, but isn’t it exactly that which constitutes the job of a designer who wants to be branded as sustainable? Doing the work, being on top of what is currently going on within the developments of sustainable options, and to always being informed about the new and better options should be just what these designers do.
Apart from the fabrics and other physical elements that go into the production of her designs, Barbara has very strong opinions on how and where the different elements of her clothes are made. She keeps most of her production within Europe, but she also has production in Pakistan and India because she believes that withdrawing completely from the East is not necessarily the answer to a more sustainable production. She thinks that committing long-term to factories in these challenged countries and implementing change in a way that makes them feel safe with the shift that the planet needs us to make happen, is the right way to go. “Change, not boycott. Support them where the shit happens”, is her approach to it, something that is admirable these days. Tweaking where they can, the production line becomes cleaner and she makes sure to visit the factories, so she can influence the production of conventional fabrics in a good way. Barbara’s opinion is that her production should be transparent, and she is open and honest about not being able to maintain a 100% sustainable line. “Honesty has quite an impact on people”, she emphasizes.
Barbara’s interpretation of sustainability is not only defined by the production of her garments, but also by the way she creates her collections. Her versatile pieces can be worn in many different ways, which is yet another way to make a garment more sustainable, because it can be used in different ways, in different contexts, by different body types and in different seasons. She wants her clothes to fit each consumer so that he or she can shape and wear it in the way that appeals to them. Her focus is on versatile, long-lasting items that can forever be reinterpreted into an individual wardrobe. The items of her collections are also part of a bigger wardrobe concept throughout her time as a designer, rather than just referring to trends and being separate, independent collections. She is inspired by trends, but does not follow them, “just like my customers”, she says.
Maintaining a good relationship with the consumer is important for any brand, but for Barbara it is more than that. Connection to her consumers is crucial for her production, and she wishes she could get more feedback from them. For Barbara, her designs all emanate from a need to create, and she feels inspired by seeing how her customers wear her clothes. She is often surprised by how experimental even her customers can be in how to wear her clothing. Barbara admires Scandinavian women. They bring their kids to kindergarten by bike in great outfits, not constrained by the weather or current trends. They change their clothes throughout the day to fit the activity they are doing, and they are fierce and strong women. But she also feels that the essence of Scandinavian women is unexplored and subject to very unproductive body ideals that act as a constraint. The customer is important to Barbara, and she believes that her versatile pieces make it easier for a wider range of customers to wear them because they can be altered and worn in different ways to cater to different body types. This approach to design is a step in the right direction when it comes to turning consumers into prosumers and to, in many ways, force the customers to take a stand when it comes to the item in front of them. At a point in time where the rapidly changing trends are still the dominant contributor on the market, the rise of the prosumer underlines a demand for a change that will bring us closer to a new understanding of value. An understanding of value that connects us to what we purchase and makes us look at the items we wear in a new light. Not as something constantly shifting and to be replaced next season, but something that we can constantly change and personalize, something that will be a part of our wardrobe for years to come, something that we will maybe take a break from for a couple of years but then reinterpret and wear again. A piece of clothing that we will take good care of – because we understand the real value behind what we wear and the value of protecting the garment so it can be used in the future.